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Why cities need accessible playgrounds

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Nearly one in five people have a disability in the U.S., yet most playgrounds aren’t built to accommodate them

An aerial view of the Salem Rehab Adaptive Playground, an inclusive therapy and community play area designed in part by Portland-based Harper’s Playground.
An aerial view of the Salem Rehab Adaptive Playground, an inclusive therapy and community play area designed in part by Portland-based Harper’s Playground.
Courtesy of 2.ink Studio

Lucia Dawkins loves to swing. Her mom, Juliet, says that when Lucia gets on a swing, “Her face just lights up into a big smile. It’s her favorite thing to do.” But unlike most of the children in parks around Denver, Colorado, where she lives, 6-year-old Lucia doesn’t have a place to play.

That’s because at 2 weeks old, Lucia was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Pallister-Killian Syndrome. Lucia—nicknamed LuBird—is in a wheelchair, legally blind, and nonverbal. When she goes to parks with her two younger siblings, “the playground is such a barrier for her,” says Juliet Dawkins. “Often the surfacing alone is hard to push a wheelchair. And if we are able to access a playground, there isn’t anything for her to do.”

The challenges faced by families like the Dawkins play out in cities throughout the U.S., where the vast majority of playgrounds aren’t built to accommodate differences in ability. Nearly one in five people have a disability in the U.S., and 13 percent of kids enrolled in public school (about 6.7 million children) receive extra services for needs ranging from autism to hearing impairment. Whether a child has cognitive issues, mobility challenges, or both, the design of most urban play areas inadvertently excludes a significant portion of the population playgrounds were built to serve.

Thanks to parents like Dawkins, however, things are changing. In metro areas around the country, nonprofit organizations and city officials are rethinking what an accessible playground looks like and how parks can serve the full range of needs found in a community.

A “typical” playground doesn’t allow access to those with disabilities. Wood chips, raised slides, narrow pathways, and multilevel, non-ramped platforms are all barriers.
Shutterstock

How playground design has changed

Typical playgrounds from the 1980s and 1990s used a prefab system of multilevel platforms, often with slides, jungle gyms, or monkey bars veering off into different directions. Bucket swings allowed babies to swing—often next to their older siblings in other standard swings—but this cookie-cutter approach to playground design limited both who could enjoy the space and how kids experienced it.

Recently, cities have shifted away from the standard playgrounds of the past in favor of more natural, adventurous, and engaging designs. Climbing walls, splash parks, sculptural play pieces, and playgrounds where kids can change and mold their environment—like Berkeley’s California Adventure Playground—all inspire kids to play in new ways. Even innovative designs, however, aren’t always inclusive.

In 2010, the Department of Justice revised the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, changing the accessibility standards for playgrounds. The new rules mandate that compliant playgrounds need to be accessible via ramps and barrier-free travel routes, include a range of accessible play options, and provide an appropriate surface beneath all accessible equipment.

But a truly inclusive playground goes beyond federal ADA requirements that made access to play areas a civil right. In Palo Alto, California, doctors told Olenka Villarreal that her young daughter, Ava, needed vestibular movement—like swinging—to help with her significant developmental challenges. Villarreal searched for a playground that could suit their needs, but had to drive 45 minutes away to find one. When Villarreal approached local officials about the need for an accessible playground, the city told her that all 34 of Palo Alto’s playgrounds were ADA compliant.

Supportive swings—complete with harnesses and tall backs—at Owen’s Playground on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Courtesy of Harper’s Playground

Her frustration prompted her to start the Magical Bridge Foundation and open up an inclusive playground in 2015 where Ava could play beside other children. For Villarreal, the difference between ADA compliant and inclusive design was stark. As Jill Asher, co-founder and co-executive director of the Magical Bridge Foundation, says, “Just because I can access something doesn’t mean I can enjoy it.”

Some cities are taking note. Christopher Noel, the ADA accessibility coordinator for NYC Parks, says, “Compliant playgrounds without inclusive features defeats the purpose.” Using funds from the Community Parks Initiative and the Anchor Parks Initiative, Noel and others at NYC Parks are renovating playgrounds that haven’t been updated in decades, adding all new play equipment, benches, game tables, and bathrooms that go beyond what the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates. NYC Parks also has a tiered rating system that identifies how accessible a playground is; level one is a playground for all children, while a level four playground includes transfer platforms and ground-level play features, but no adaptive swings.

What does an inclusive playground look like?

For starters, an inclusive playground allows kids in wheelchairs to play alongside their peers thanks to wider, ramped play platforms and structures that let wheelchairs roll without incident. In Los Angeles, the first inclusive and accessible playground in the West opened in 2000 thanks to a nonprofit organization called Shane’s Inspiration. Shane’s Inspiration uses accessible “gangway” ramps as well as slides with bouncy landing pads that allow children with mobility impairments to depart the slide and wait for their wheelchair or walker.

An aerial view of the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, California.
Courtesy of the Magical Bridge Foundation

Shane’s Inspiration and other inclusive designs acknowledge, however, that inclusive playgrounds are about more than wheelchair access. In New York City, Noel is working to ensure that parks include supportive swings with large backs—like the swing that LuBird Dawkins loves. Other design elements used in playgrounds in California and Oregon include activity panels at ground height, descriptions in Braille, accessible merry-go-rounds and group spinners, elevated sand tables with water pumps, and sensory play elements that incorporate touch and music.

In Portland, Oregon, an organization called Harper’s Playground advocates for “radically inclusive design.” Cody Goldberg founded Harper’s Playground to create a play space for his 5-year-old daughter, Harper, who has mobility challenges. After their first playground opened in 2012, Goldberg’s organization has gone on to help build at least eight other inclusive playgrounds.

A supportive see-saw at Owen’s Playground on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Courtesy of Harper’s Playground

Goldberg uses nature and open plazas in his designs, saying, “No one has come close to the perfect definition of inclusive.” Harper’s Playground “makes [playgrounds] accessible and adaptive so that the space is physically inviting; uses nature so that it’s socially inviting to all; and makes it beautiful and thoughtful with artistic details so that the playground is emotionally inviting.”

This philosophy plays out at the Salem Rehab Adaptive Playground. Working with the Salem Hospital Outpatient Rehabilitation Center and the landscape architecture firm 2.ink Studio, Harper’s Playground consulted on the design of a public all-abilities playground that could also function as a working pediatric and adult therapy setting. The playground uses many of the features already described as well as a serpentine track that functions as a therapy loop to work on mobility training, gait training, and measured distance activities.

Similarly, the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto breaks the space into zones—like a swing zone, a slide zone, etc.—so that kids with sensory issues don’t feel overwhelmed, and many new playgrounds feature some sort of safe space or cocoon where children can retreat if they need a break.

According to Asher, these types of accommodations can work wonders for kids on the autism spectrum or for children diagnosed with ADHD. And finally, today’s accessible playgrounds also work to incorporate the entire family into the fun, mindful that there are plenty of parents and grandparents with disabilities or mobility impairments who could also benefit from inclusive design.

Smooth surfacing allows for easy access to Harper’s Playground at Arbor Lodge Park.
Courtesy of Harper’s Playground

Challenges to building accessible playgrounds

If there is one thing that’s stopping cities from building new accessible playgrounds, it’s money. When the nation’s first playground constructed for both disabled and able-bodied children opened in 1984 in New York City, the project cost $3,353,000. Today, New York City Parks doesn’t just want a few top-notch accessible playgrounds, it wants each neighborhood to have one. “Why should parents have to travel to have an accessible playground if it could just be down the street?” asks Noel. Still, he says, how many playgrounds a city can build “comes down to the amount of dollars that can be spent.”

Accessible playground surfacing—not the wood chips of yesterday—is expensive, as are construction, environmental mitigation, and innovative play equipment. In Oregon, it cost $1.2 million to build the original Harper’s Playground; although that total includes the cost of running the nonprofit for three years. Palo Alto’s Magical Bridge playground cost almost $4 million, a figure that Asher acknowledges “most communities could not afford.”

The solution for cash-strapped cities? “Make whatever small steps you can when you’re building,” Asher says. “Look at things that are inclusive, and get rid of the sand and bark.” Goldberg also believes that minimalist design can help keep costs lower. “A few features in a beautiful space can do a lot, especially if your focus is to emphasize human interaction.”

The slide area at Magical Bridge Playground in California. The area at the bottom of the slide is a safe place for kids to wait for their wheelchair or walker.
Courtesy of the Magical Bridge Foundation

In Denver, Dawkins is raising money through her organization, LuBird’s Light, for the city’s first inclusive playground, a new $700,000 space located at a repurposed manufacturing facility called Stanley Marketplace. With hopes to open in spring 2019, Dawkins, in the meantime, has worked with officials to install adaptive swings at local parks at a cost of around $400 to $600 each. “If we are able to add a single swing to each park, I think that’s amazing,” Dawkins says. “Ideally all playgrounds would be inclusive, barrier free, and have more than one activity. But adding a swing is one step closer.”

Everyone working on inclusive playgrounds agrees: Pressuring local governments can help. “You need to convince city officials that [a playground] is worthwhile,” says Goldberg.

Likewise, Asher says, “If local officials feel this is important, they can step up and find the funding for it.”

The sheer number of people using and advocating for inclusive spaces can also demand recognition. Magical Bridge in Palo Alto sees 25,000 people per month, with an average stay of two hours. Accessible playgrounds become destinations; only about 28 percent of the visitors to Magical Bridge are local. Beyond playgrounds, the world’s first accessible splash park opened in San Antonio, Texas, in 2017.

And while Shane’s Inspiration, Harper’s Playground, and the Magical Bridge Foundation all started with a focus of building one playground, today each organization is working on a much broader scale. Since its first build in 2000, Shane’s Inspiration has opened 68 playgrounds, including some internationally. Harper’s Playground functions as a successful design consultant firm, while the Magical Bridge Foundation is in the process of building several new playgrounds and also plans to work with equipment manufacturer Playworld to make school playgrounds more inclusive.

At the busy Magical Bridge park in Palo Alto, California, kids play on an accessible merry-go-round.
Courtesy of the Magical Bridge Foundation

Why cities benefit from inclusive spaces

The popularity of newly built inclusive playgrounds—to say nothing of their increasing number—speaks volumes. Kids of all ability levels have fun at these types of parks. “Communities want this,” Asher says of the Magical Bridge playground. And city governments should want them too.

The benefits of play for children can’t be overstated, from encouraging brain development to helping kids meet development milestones and cultivate social skills. But when playgrounds aren’t inclusive, a city’s most vulnerable population can’t benefit from the same experiences as their peers.

Perhaps the most important byproduct of inclusive playgrounds is that they could lead to better communities. Goldberg argues that neighbors build social capital when they spend time together in parks, and that businesses are more attracted to cities with well-designed green space. “The investment a city puts into a public space,” Goldberg says, “is paid back a thousandfold with a healthier community that surrounds that place.”

On an individual level, when playgrounds are well designed from the beginning, no one is left out. “Accessible playgrounds give kids of all abilities the chance to play together on the same playground,” says Noel. “When we make our playgrounds inclusive, we’re making a more inclusive society. That’s what I think we’re creating here.”